Ignatiusly Reading

Ignatius_of_Loyola_(militant)[This is a companion post to Quixotic Reading]

Reading in a life-giving way is not primarily a matter of reading but of living; of how we read our lives. Don Quixote idolized Amadis of Gaul, Emma Bovary idolized her lovers and Werther idolized Lotte. The primary reason for the Werther effect is that readers of Goethe’s novel committed the same idolatry through mimetic desire as did Werther. If we are too embroiled in our mimetic desires to have eyes to see what Cervantes and Flaubert see, then we will only see what Goethe seems to have been able to see when he wrote Werther: the despair of desiring a woman desired by another who has made that woman unattainable. That is, the way the readers of Werther were living their lives affected their reading and their reading reinforced the way they were living their lives.

In his incisive study of Don Quixote (The Humble Story of Don Quixote; Reflections on the Birth of the Modern Novel) Cesario Bandera leads us to the heart of the Don’s problem and ours: “God-like Amadis is not God. God transcends empirical reality but does not ignore it or make it irrelevant.” The more we look at the world around us and interact respectfully with it, the less apt we are to be swept away by the fantasies of mimetic desire. God “demands an absolute act of faith beyond empirical reality, but such an act of faith does not obliterate the inherent rationality of the world ‘out there.’ The act of faith is essential only to prevent empirical reality from becoming a god unto itself, an idol.” (p.155) Bandera is alerting us to the problem of allowing our models to distort the world around us, making models like Amadis or Albert (Lotte’s husband) the lens through which we interact with the world instead of God.

Ignatius of Loyola provides an instructive contrast to Don Quixote. According to his Autobiography, Ignatius liked to read the same sorts of chivalrous romances the Don Quixote did and, while he was recovering from his battle injuries, he asked for this sort of literature, but only a life of Christ and a book of the lives of the saints was available, so he read those instead. These books changed not only what Ignatius read, but how he read. Not only did he stop to think about the things he was reading, he also stopped to think “about the things of the world that he used to think of before.” That is, Ignatius was using what he read to connect him to real life, the life God had created rather than what life looks like through the lens of an idol like Amadis. During this time of struggle and repentance, Ignatius then confesses his infatuation with the idea (not reality) of going into the service of a “certain lady,” oblivious to “how impossible it would be.”

But then Ignatius started to think about what it would be like to imitate Saint Francis or Saint Dominic who had imitated Christ? Such thoughts gave him consolation that thoughts of soldiering and chivalry did not give him. Here were models that were challenging but not impossible. Ignatius was spurred on to develop a spirituality based on the imitation of Christ, not an imitation of external actions only but, more important, of cultivating the inner disposition of Christ’s charity for others that was to become the backbone of his Spiritual Exercises. Bandera draws the contrast for us when he says that “unlike Christ, Amadis cannot give his follower what he wants without ceasing to be Amadis.” (P.157) That is, Amadis, if real, would be what Girard calls a model-obstacle whom Quixote would need to best in combat, which would change Amadis for the worse if Amadis was vanquished. Christ, on the other hand is a model without rivalry, who wishes to be imitated without rivalry. Ignatius discovered that Christ creates an abundance of charity that can only become more abundant through imitating him. The idea of imitating Jesus led to a real pilgrimage to Jerusalem and then to a real spiritual pilgrimage of imitating Christ for the rest of his life.